Radio host Clay Travis recently defended freedom of speech in a way the Right should have been doing all along. In response to Twitter’s recent banning of several people, including Dr. Robert Malone, Travis launched into an unequivocal defense of our First Amendment. But whereas many have reflexively felt the need to add that they don’t necessarily agree with everything the latest victim of such bans says, Travis deliberately went the other way.
“Not only do I not always agree with anyone else 100 percent,” Travis said, “sometimes I don’t even totally agree with my own opinion”—meaning he still must leave room for the possibility that he is wrong.
It is long past time for those on the Right to do away with apologetic defenses of freedom of speech. The reason people so often feel compelled to throw in the caveat that they are different from the person they are defending is because they do not want to risk the costs of guilt by association. Enough of this.
There are endless examples. My favorite is Ben Shapiro’s 2018 video opposing the banishment of Alex Jones from Facebook and iTunes, in which the first words out of his mouth were, “Alex Jones is a bad guy, but . . .” In beginning his argument this way, Shapiro, who is smart enough to know what he’s doing, was trying to assure his more squeamish followers and sponsors that he was “civilized” while paying lip service to the free speech of a crude savage like Jones. In doing so, however, all he did was assure the statement dissuades the audience from focusing on the outrage perpetrated against the “offender’s” right of self expression, and instead that they dwell on the eccentric character or unusual views of the person who got banned.
This is not helpful.
On the other hand, it’s difficult for many to abandon the standard approach because saying the wrong thing or taking a principled stance these days could well result in a pink slip or social ostracization. Which, of course, reinforces the point about how perilous the times are for free speech.
We should remember that when defending a person’s liberty—freedom of speech in particular—it is totally redundant to state one’s disagreement with that person as a caveat. The purpose of having a right such as freedom of speech is in order to permit disagreement between individuals and their peers, the government, churches and religious bodies, and other institutions. You are not required to like what another person says in order to defend his or her right to say it.
For the same reason, one need not invoke the admonition “and I also condemn any crimes he supposedly committed” when defending a person’s assertion of Fifth Amendment rights.
Glenn Greenwald, a journalist and a man of the Left, has stuck his neck out repeatedly to criticize Democrats and progressives on issues such as the prolonged detention of January 6 rioters. He openly criticizes the Justice Department for saying the rioters were engaging in treasonous insurrection while legally charging them with much lesser crimes because they knew their hyped-up accusations were specious and unfounded. Greenwald does not issue the peremptory condemnation of the rioters, because the issue is not his agreement or disagreement with their actions, but rather the illegal and abusive treatment of them once in custody.
Civil liberties defenders need to remember who their adversaries are, and who is enabling them. We know from their dogged pursuit of Julian Assange as well as recent attempts to chill the free speech of Project Veritas that the Justice Department and intelligence agencies do not adhere to lofty principles in pursuing their goals in limiting our freedom of speech. Remember, too, there is a U.S. Education Secretary who may have solicited a letter from the National School Boards Association calling for the FBI and Department of Homeland Security to investigate parents criticizing them.
Americans are at each other’s throats over vaccine and mask mandates, and social media companies along with traditional media outlets are deeply committed to silencing any opinions that dissent from the official regime narrative about those topics. The government of Australia, a nation whose anthem calls her “young and free,” is placing citizens in “voluntary” lockup camps if they are exposed to COVID positive individuals. The time has passed for mealy mouthed objections where the speaker seems grudgingly to be fulfilling an obligation in defending the civil liberties of those with whom they may otherwise disagree. Ultimately the threat to free speech and other civil liberties from blowhards and demagogues is minuscule in comparison to the threats from governments, social media companies, and smear journalists like Oliver Darcy.
Gab, GETTR, and the Fuentes Standard
The recent exodus of major personalities from mainstream tech platforms (YouTube/Twitter/Meta/Patreon/Instagram) to so-called Alternative Tech competitors (Rumble/Odysee/GETTR/Clouthub/Gab/Bitchute) brings the question of how to defend free speech into focus. This is a long overdue development, but it has come with its own negative consequences. First and foremost, is a platform capable of calling itself a “free speech alternative” if its terms of service are only marginally better than those in the Big Tech universe? This is especially true regarding Rumble and GETTR, the latter of which shadow banned reporter Elijah Schaffer of The Blaze for questioning its ban of Nick Fuentes. Joe Rogan has also called GETTR into question for displaying much higher active follower numbers than can be demonstrated in reality. Gab, led by the Christian nationalist Andrew Torba, has stood firm on not banning any content creator not engaged in illegal or “obscene” activity, and therefore Fuentes remains active there. And here we get to an issue that is often radioactive even among avowed conservatives. While many conservatives fly the flag high concerning the First Amendment when it comes to harassment, deplatforming, or censorship of milquetoast figures such as Shapiro and Tomi Lahren, they often freeze like concrete when it comes to a person like Fuentes.
It’s not hard to understand why. The positions taken by mainstream conservatives like Lahren and Shapiro (Conservative, Inc. as their deriders call them) are not consensus opinions in the broader sense. They criticize the Democratic Party and the Left, however, only while being careful never to challenge or confront corporations and institutions on their own side. Fuentes and his cohort, on the other hand, see it as their mission to engage in confrontation with those groups and their standard bearers as much as possible and make a point of being as abrasive and controversial as they can in their pursuit of that goal.
In 2019 Fuentes’ followers (the “Groypers”) made a point of going to the events of the group Turning Point USA which, according to them, fits within the scope of Conservative, Inc. While there, they heckled speakers such as Charlie Kirk and Rob Smith while also packing the question queue with their followers. To his own audience Fuentes’ supporters appeared engaged in a hilarious exercise of their right to protest and dissent from an institution that pays lip service to freedom of speech while not living up to that ideal. To others such as Jim Hoft of Gateway Pundit they gatecrashed a conservative event in order to heckle Kirk for being too friendly to Jews and Israel and Smith for being a homosexual.
Personalities within the conservative sphere predictably took the road of least resistance and poured their scorn on Fuentes. The same week of the Kirk event Sebastian Gorka, a radio commentator whose program America First ironically shares its name with Fuentes’ own, condemned Fuentes and the Groypers as an “anti-Semitic, Holocaust-denying grifter.” As a former Trump Administration strategist Gorka’s strident condemnation attracted much attention, including numerous calls from Groypers to his station attempting to goad him into an outburst.
Michelle Malkin, on the other hand, defended Fuentes despite his followers’ similar stunt heckling Kirk and Donald Trump, Jr. earlier that month. For her comments she was fired from Young America’s Foundation. Rather than throw in the caveats, Malkin condemned her former employer and asserted that “Keepers of the Gate” were defining which opinions were acceptable within the conservative sphere.
My contention is that if the conservative movement is really about free speech both Gorka and Malkin should be free to state their views without career repercussions.
When Fuentes was banned in 2020 from YouTube, Shapiro issued another typical “defense” that he prefaced by calling Fuentes “an absolute disgusting s—show.” Then this July Fuentes was banned again, this time from the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). The message sent is that while conservatives will proclaim to anyone who will listen that they are being stigmatized, disenfranchised, and targeted by the political Left, they will at the same time quake in fear at the suggestion that they may in any way be associated with a person of distasteful or overly controversial opinions on their own side lest they jeopardize their own careers. Given Fuentes’ numerous social media bans during the Trump Administration but also his placement on a no-fly list under Biden, was Malkin wrong? We now have an American social media landscape that isn’t just bisected between the Left (Big Tech) and the Right (GETTR/Rumble) but even trisected as many right-wing political figures and commentators would never use Gab, or at least avoid doing so in ways that might identify them.
When I think about how siloed America’s public discourse has become with the advent of social media, I realize that past battles won on the First Amendment landscape were not conclusive; we are indeed continuing to fight for free speech rights that we foolishly thought were settled years ago. Recently I read the out-of-print book Defending My Enemy by Aryeh Neier. Having fled Germany as a child, Neier would immigrate to the United States and become the national director of the ACLU during the period when it defended neo-Nazi leader Frank Collin in the famous NSPA v. Village of Skokie case.
While Neier would go on much later to cloud his legacy, serving as the director of George Soros’ Open Society Foundation, the book itself was written only two years after the Skokie decision. In one of the last chapters Neier addresses the oft-repeated myth that granting the German Nazis freedom of speech enabled their rise to power. He disputes this effectively, arguing that in fact there were acts of the Weimar German authorities to limit Hitler and his followers’ speech including hate-speech laws, yet there was very little police enforcement of actual violent crimes by Nazi brownshirts or their communist opponents. The speech policing of Nazis like Goebbels and Streicher by the authorities at the time only helped to publicize their cause and allowed them to attract more followers. Does that sound familiar to any of you?
Retrofit Free Speech Back To Its Noble Past
Alternative social media platforms have the potential to promote true freedom of speech and change the public conversation. GETTR talks a good game but it fails a basic litmus test by banning those it says engage in “hate speech” like Fuentes. In Gab, however, I have found a platform that, despite the fact that my viewpoints are at a stark variance with its founder, so far I have never noticed any throttling of users and it appears to be true to his commitment to freedom of speech. There are many users and senior officers like Torba on the platform who espouse openly hostile opinions towards people like me, a libertarian and practicing Jew. On the other hand, I have been on Gab for four years, and while I see more people openly espousing hostile anti-Jewish views than I would on Facebook and I understand this can be offputting for some, they typically do not bother me unless I directly address them. As more users with other viewpoints join the platform I have observed that rather than be radicalized by those with these repellant views, they simply form their own common interest groups. There are many such groups on Gab for topics political, religious or general interest.
In the past month or so several GOP members of Congress have taken the plunge and joined Gab: Paul Gosar (Ariz.), Marjorie Taylor Greene (Ga.A), Thomas Massie (Ky.) and Matt Gaetz (Fla.). The platform’s greatest weakness, in my view, is that Torba and many of the most active users are so aggressive against competing alt-tech alternatives potentially drawing traffic away from Gab that they reflexively attack and condemn them as “controlled opposition” and “grifters.” True or not, it is tiresome.
The explosive growth experienced by Gab and GETTR alike is, I believe, an important watershed moment in countering censorship and cancel culture. It’s pleasing that liberals like Joe Rogan are joining GETTR and Greenwald, Jimmy Dore, and others have joined Rumble so that they don’t just become a right-wing echo chamber. Slowly, if at first reluctantly, more people are signing on to making a full-throated commitment to freedom of speech—however shocking and offensive it may be to those who are used to having their opposition curated. That is what is needed now more than ever, for George Orwell himself once wrote “if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”